With his inauguration as New York City's new mayor on New Years Day, progressive eyes across the country are now keenly focused on Mr. Bill De Blasio, waiting to see if his promises to tackle "inequality" can be realized in the city that has long coddled Wall Street banks and powerful elites at the expense of those with less.
Voicing his continued commitment "to a new progressive direction" in his inaugural speech in Brooklyn on Wednesday, De Blasio did not shy away from his growing role as a bellwether in the national conversation about the political strength of progressive populism.
He vowed to fight for key parts of his campaign agenda, including raising taxes on the city's wealthiest in order to pay for a pre-K education program, expand the Paid Sick Leave Law for all workers, end the so-called "stop-and-frisk" program which he called an affront to the dignity of the city's minorities and youth, and push for more affordable housing across the city's boroughs.
In the most lofty part of his speech, De Blasio declared that beyond the basic requirements of municipal government, his administration would push a more far-reaching agenda and harkened back to other historical moments in which progressive policies were ascendent. He said:
We recognize a city government’s first responsibilities: to keep our neighborhoods safe; to keep our streets clean; to ensure that those who live here – and those who visit – can get where they need to go in every boroughs. But we know that our mission reaches deeper. We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love. And so today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York. And that same progressive impulse has written our city’s history. It’s in our DNA.
Nearly a century ago, it was Al Smith who waged war on unsafe working conditions and child labor. It was Franklin Roosevelt and Frances Perkins who led the charge for the basic bargain of unemployment insurance and the minimum wage. It was Fiorello La Guardia who enacted the New Deal here on the city level, battled the excesses of Wall Street, and championed a progressive income tax.
From Jacob Riis to Eleanor Roosevelt to Harry Belafonte — who we are so honored to have with us here today — it was New Yorkers who challenged the status quo, who blazed a trail of progressive reform and political action, who took on the elite, who stood up to say that social and economic justice will start here and will start now.
It’s that tradition that inspires the work we now begin. A movement that sees the inequality crisis we face today, and resolves that it will not define our future. Now I know there are those who think that what I said during the campaign was just rhetoric, just “political talk” in the interest of getting elected. There are some who think now, as we turn to governing – well, things will just continue pretty much like they always have.
Whether or not De Blasio can make progress on his "progressive agenda," of course, remains to be seen. Flanked by Governor Andrew Cuomo and both Hillary and Bill Clinton (the latter swore him in as mayor), the inauguration was not devoid of reminders that the most pro-Wall Street faction of the Democratic Party was well represented.
As the New York Time's Michael Powell writes:
[Cuomo and former President Clinton] are the Great Triangulators, who most often tiptoe around raging liberal fires. Their presence cast into sharp relief Mr. de Blasio’s embrace of a new progressive zeitgeist.
President Clinton, who swore in the new mayor, deregulated the financial industry, and possibly helped to unleash the animal spirits that led to the recent Great Recession. Hillary Rodham Clinton, another exemplar of center liberalism, stood behind them.
Governor Cuomo, who once employed Mr. de Blasio, wrapped him in a bear hug Wednesday and appeared to harbor genuine affection for the new mayor. But the governor, too, is a cautious ideological sailor, tacking this way and that. He has appointed two tax commissions, one liberal and one not so much. And he has pulled up short of endorsing Mr. de Blasio’s proposal for a tax on the wealthy to pay for universal prekindergarten.
Touching on the national implications of De Blasio's firm commitments to a progressive agenda in stark contrast to the status quo, the Guardian adds:
The change of direction from the business-friendly stewardship of billionaire Michael Bloomberg to the unashamed emphasis on equality and social justice of the incoming mayor marks a new era for the city. The shift could have profound nationwide repercussions, as it propels De Blasio into the spotlight as one of the country’s most prominent liberal politicians in charge of a city of 8.4 million people, the largest public schools system in the US and a workforce of 350,000.
And Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne uses De Blasio's "unabashed attack on inequality" in his inaugural speech to make larger pronouncements about the progressive populist groundswell being felt nationwide:
You might summarize the revived left’s basic gripe with this question: Why was it so much easier to spend public money on rescuing financial institutions than on rescuing families caught in a cycle of unemployment, collapsing incomes and foreclosures?
Take the most recent flash point. Discussions about entitlements have revolved almost exclusively around the question of how much to cut them. By contrast, progressives such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) say we must begin dealing with a coming retirement crisis fostered by the near disappearance of traditional private pensions.
They argue that Social Security is not providing enough for low- and middle-income retirees and that making the program financially secure will necessarily involve lifting the cap on income taxed for Social Security. That cap requires middle-income Americans to pay a much larger share of their income than the highest earners do. Ask yourself: Are these unreasonable concerns?
More generally, the Democratic left is animated by the battle against growing inequality and declining social mobility — the idea, as Warren has said repeatedly, that “the system is rigged for powerful interests and against working families.” She and her allies are not anti-capitalist. Their goal is to reform the system so it spreads its benefits more widely. Warren has argued that everything she’s done on behalf of financial reform has, in fact, been designed to make markets work better.
The resurgent progressives are battling a double standard. They are asking why it is that “populism” is a good thing when it’s invoked by the tea party against “liberal elites” but suddenly a bad thing when it describes efforts to raise the minimum wage and take other steps toward a fairer system of economic rewards.
It seems that in 2014, both in New York City and across the country, is whether the left can not only win a few elections here or there, but whether or not they can create enough grassroots political power to see their proposals for truly progressive change take hold.